The U.N. Secretary-General told Ethiopia’s government Wednesday that it should show him any documents or evidence the country has to substantiate accusations related to the expulsion of seven senior humanitarian officials from the country.
In a rare and unusual public exchange, Antonio Guterres took the floor of the U.N. Security Council after the Ethiopian ambassador leveled accusations against the staffers, including that they inflated the numbers of people in need of aid by 1 million and reported deaths that never happened.
“I would like to ask you one thing, Mr. Ambassador,” Guterres said, directing his remarks to Ethiopian envoy Taye Atske Selassie, who was seated at the council table. “If there is any written document provided by the Ethiopian government to any U.N. institution about any of the (seven) members of the U.N. that were expelled, I’d like to receive a copy of that document, because I haven’t any knowledge of any of them, and it would be very useful to me.”
Guterres went on to say that he twice told Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that if he had concerns about the lack of impartiality of U.N. staff, he should raise them directly with him so he could investigate.
“Until now, I have no response to this request,” the secretary-general said.
He added that Addis Ababa’s move to expel the officials is a violation of international law. U.N. staff are protected by immunity conventions.
Guterres emphasized that he seeks cooperation with the government so humanitarians can do the necessary work to ease the suffering of millions of Ethiopians.
“We have no other interest but to help stop that suffering,” he said.
Reporters outside the council asked him about the exchange.
“It is my duty to defend the honor of the United Nations,” Guterres replied.
On Sept. 30, Ethiopia announced the seven had 72 hours to leave the country, accusing them of meddling in its internal affairs and diverting aid and telecommunications equipment to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The government has been fighting the TPLF in the north of the country for nearly a year.
On Monday, the United Nations confirmed the seven were no longer in the country.
At Wednesday’s council meeting, Ethiopian envoy Selassie appeared to level new accusations.
He said there were a “multitude of transgressions,” including efforts by the staffers to create a “Darfur-like” situation — referring to the massive humanitarian crisis in Sudan in the early 2000s.
“They suddenly and overnight created 1 million victims,” he alleged.
“We have evidence that the entire endeavor was created by a higher and more sophisticated motivation that seeks to undermine the Ethiopian state and rescue the TPLF,” he said without elaboration.
The humanitarian situation in Tigray and the neighboring regions of Amhara and Afar is deteriorating. Guterres said Wednesday that up to 7 million people in the three conflict-affected areas are in need of food assistance and other support. He warned that obstacles have “crippled” humanitarian operations.
Council members also expressed their concern about the expulsion of the U.N. staffers.
“There is no justification for the government of Ethiopia’s action,” U.S. envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. “None at all.”
She said the expulsions followed a “pattern of escalating obstruction” by the government that must be reversed.
“And if these calls for humanitarian access continue to go unheard, then the Security Council must act,” she said. “We can ensure the U.N. is allowed to deliver impartial aid. We should immediately consider all tools at our disposal to facilitate this, including a Security Council resolution, to save lives and promote international peace and security.”
The African members of the council — Kenya, Niger and Tunisia — along with China, urged “quiet diplomacy” to resolve the rift between Addis Ababa and the United Nations.
Russia’s representative was more explicit, saying that while the expulsions were regrettable, they should not be “dramatized.”
“We are certain that pressure involving the U.N. Security Council, threats and resolutions, and the imposition of unlawful unilateral sanctions and the creation of a toxic atmosphere in the media is counterproductive,” Russian Deputy U.N. Ambassador Anna Evstigneeva said.